What counts as a sign? Per the New York City Zoning Resolution, a sign is any visual graphic—whether it be emblems, pictures, or writing—outside a building that is used to advertise, announce, or otherwise direct attention towards something. The Department of Buildings has two major categories of signs, each with its own provisions and regulations.
Advertising signs advertise goods or services at another location (i.e., a billboard for the McDonald’s two blocks away). These signs are difficult to place; they’re prohibited outright in residential districts and in most commercial districts, as well. Even in districts where they are permitted, aspects like height, size, illumination, and placement are strictly regulated and vary widely depending on the particular district.
Accessory signs are what we would consider storefront signs. These signs advertise goods or services for the location at which they’re posted (i.e., a large sign at a Duane Reade storefront advertising pharmacy hours). As a result, the stipulations and regulations for posting accessory signs are much more liberal.
Regardless of the sign type and district location, all signs must follow the safety guidelines laid out by the Department of Buildings. Additionally, unless the signs are painted, smaller than six square feet, and not illuminated, the Department must approve the sign designs and issue a permit first. Depending on the type of sign, these designs may have to be drawn up by a registered architect, engineer, or sign hanger. Signs that need electrical connections require a second, separate permit filed by an electrician.
Signs posted without a permit or otherwise in violation of building and zoning regulations may result in forced removal and hefty fines—a cool $10,000 each for first time offenses and $25,000 each thereafter.